SALT LAKE CITY – There were three participants in the vice presidential debate: Republican Mike Pence, Democrat Kamala Harris and the plexiglass between them.
The clear partitions went largely unmentioned Wednesday night as Pence and Harris directed criticism at one another, and the home audience couldn't see them in split-screen TV images. But when the cameras showed Pence or Harris from the side, the candidates' reflections were evident on the barriers.
It was a reminder of the coronavirus, prominent in the evening's discussion. They were late additions to the stage in Salt Lake City, underscoring how the pandemic rages on less than a month before the Nov. 3 election. Pence and Harris were stationed at desks spaced more than 12 feet (3.7 meters) apart, each with a partition on the side facing the other candidate.
Sen. Harris' team requested plexiglass be used after President Donald Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19 shortly after his first presidential debate against Democrat Joe Biden last week in Cleveland. Pence's team, meanwhile, insisted they were not medically necessary, an objection that came as Trump returned to the White House. The Trump campaign is trying to move past the virus despite the president's own diagnosis.
For the most part, Pence and Harris directed their comments toward moderator Susan Page rather than in each other's direction. She was not protected by plexiglass.
Other reminders that these are not normal times for a vice presidential debate: 20 chairs for guests were spaced roughly 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart in the debate hall, a performing arts center on the University of Utah campus. The auditorium’s balcony included 60 students who won a lottery for tickets and were issued salmon-colored university masks. Donors and other guests sat in traditional theater seats, though there were at least two empty seats between guests.
Staff took guests’ temperatures upon entrance into the hall and asked people to sanitize their hands. Wearing a mask was required. Guests were reminded before the event started to keep their masks on and advised that anyone not complying would be asked to put them back on. Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, warned that those who refused would be escorted out of the hall by law enforcement.
The debate went on without interruption. But when it finished, Karen Pence removed the mask she had been wearing as she joined her husband on stage. Doug Emhoff, Harris' husband, kept his on.
A disclaimer on the back of the debate tickets said participants relieved the commission as well as the debate’s site host "of any and all liability of any kind of character ... including COVID-19.”
At last week's opening presidential debate, some Trump invitees were issued masks but declined to wear them, even when expressly asked to do so by debate organizers.
On Wednesday, even the network TV cameras had plexiglass wrapping on the sides and back. But the barriers between Harris and Pence did not extend to the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today.
Both Harris and Pence tested negative for the virus Tuesday, their respective teams said. A number of members of the Trump administration are continuing to test positive.
Pence’s guests in the debate hall were meant to convey a “law and order” message that has been a centerpiece of the Trump campaign. They included Ann Marie Dorn, the widow of retired St. Louis police captain David Dorn, who was shot and killed on June 2 after a violent night of protests. She also spoke at the Republican National Convention.
The vice president was also joined by Flora Westbrooks, whose Minneapolis hair salon was burned down in May during protests over George Floyd’s killing by police. Also there on Pence's behalf were the parents of Kayla Mueller, a humanitarian aid worker who was taken captive and killed by Islamic State militants.
Harris invited Utah state Rep. Angela Romero, a longtime community organizer for progressive causes, and Deborah Gatrell, a high school teacher running for Salt Lake County Council.
Before the debate, dozens of Trump and Pence supporters stood on the street outside waving flags and chanting, some holding anti-abortion signs. A long line of supporters of the Biden-Harris ticket, many cheering and waving campaign signs, also lined areas near the auditorium.